Why is the Bush burning?

Moses and the Burning BushBefore I head out the door on an eight-day speaking trip (perhaps with spotty blogging prospects in terms of time and web access), I want to try to connect a few dots on the HHGR story.

If you visit this blog fairly often, you may have noticed my mantra that the two hottest religion stories over the past decade or two have been sex and/or salvation. Lurking in the background are issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, church-state separation (on the religious left as well as the right) and other topics.

The spirit of the age, especially in newsrooms, is a kind of moral libertarianism that combines elements of conservative economics and liberalism on cultural, moral and religious issues. Thus, journalists in the MSM struggle, at times, to do fair coverage of the religious traditionalists that they consider backward, while often overlooking altogether stories about the religious left. It is hard to tolerate those you have decided are intolerant.

I have decided that the MSM honor this law in coverage of moral and cultural issues: When in doubt, the Religious Right must lose.

Now we see why the strange case of Harriet Miers has everyone so confused. The template is gone, because the Religious Right is divided. There are religious leaders in favor of Miers and those who are opposed. There are abortion-rights advocates who are furious about her appointment — singing in chorus with opponents of abortion on demand. There are evangelicals who think this church lady is right on and those who think her nomination is an abomination.

Cultural conservatives and libertarian conservatives are gathering in several camps:

Those who trust the team of God and President Bush above all.

Those who do not trust Bush, in part because of rising evidence that the crony card trumps everything else.

Traditional conservatives — including many in pews — who are insulted that Bush passed over thousands of more qualified candidates (including younger judges, other females and minorities) and that now, to fight the opposition, the White House is playing the God card.

Thus, the typical MSM journalist is confused. There are sources that she or he respects (or laughs at) on both sides. It’s hard to punch the macro key that inserts the normal Religious Right language. Who is smart? Who is stupid?

One thing, however, is clear. The old, vague Bush code (thank you, David D. Kirkpatrick) on moral issues is not working.

But I believe several editorial writers have hit the nail on the head, starting with John Fund in The Wall Street Journal and Democrat Francis Wilkinson in The New York Times. Let’s start with a long, long chunk of Fund’s essay — which demonstrates why the “Trust me” line is not working.

After leaving office, Dwight Eisenhower was asked by a reporter if he had made any mistakes as president. “Two,” Ike replied. “They are both on the Supreme Court.” He referred to Earl Warren and William Brennan, both of whom became liberal icons.

Richard Nixon personally assured conservatives that Harry Blackmun would vote the same way as his childhood friend, Warren Burger. Within four years, Justice Blackmun had spun Roe v. Wade out of whole constitutional cloth. Chief Justice Burger concurred in Roe, and made clear he didn’t even understand what the court was deciding: “Plainly,” he wrote, “the Court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortions on demand.”

Gerald Ford personally told members of his staff that John Paul Stevens was “a good Republican, and would vote like one.” …

An upcoming biography of Sandra Day O’Connor by Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic includes correspondence from Ronald Reagan to conservative senators concerned about her scant paper trail. The message was, in effect: Trust me. She’s a traditional conservative. From Roe v. Wade to racial preferences, she has proved not to be. Similarly, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation recalls the hard sell the Reagan White House made on behalf of Anthony Kennedy in 1987, after the Senate rejected Robert Bork. “They even put his priest on the phone with us to assure us he was solid on everything,” Mr. Weyrich recalls. …

Most famously, White House chief of staff John Sununu told Pat McGuigan, an aide to Mr. Weyrich, that the appointment of David Souter in 1990 would please conservatives. “This is a home run, and the ball is still ascending. In fact, it’s just about to leave earth orbit,” he told Mr. McGuigan. At the press conference announcing the appointment, the elder President Bush asserted five times that Justice Souter was “committed to interpreting, not making the law.” The rest is history.

Wilkinson veered into the same territory in an essay titled “Another Republican for Roe?” The key concept: Try to imagine a Bill Clinton appointing someone to the court who ends up being pro-life. Can you picture that, even though 40 percent of the Democratic Party continues to identify itself as opposed to abortion on demand?

So what is going on inside the big tent of the new GOP? Wilkinson writes:

There are various theories to explain these instances of Sudden Pro-Choice Syndrome but no clear explanation. It’s the darnedest thing, but when it comes to the most sacred cause in the Republican canon, the right to life, Republican presidents somehow find a way to mess up. You’d almost think they were doing it on purpose. …

Roe v. Wade is not a fine point of law that busy presidents and their staffs overlook. It is the most visceral, emotional and politically contentious issue the court has decided in the past three decades. If you were president of the United States and truly believed abortion to be a modified form of murder, I suspect you would not only nominate someone who seemed to share your view on this paramount issue, but you’d also make damned sure there was no margin for error.

So what is the Big Idea?

Journalists must realize the leadership of the Republican Party knows that pro-life, traditional religious believers — Democrats, as well as Republicans — have nowhere to go in an era in which, to paraphrase Maureen Dowd, the Democratic Party’s only iron-clad value is the defense of Woodstock. So the Republican establishment can treat cultural conservatives the way the Democrats treat labor unions.

Also, opposing abortion is not a logical stance, for those who define “conservatism” as the radical freedom of every individual and the rule of the almighty dollar. Check out this classic essay from The Atlantic that explains all of this.

At the moment, the GOP leadership is divided for a simple reason. The party is divided. Meanwhile, the Religious Right is divided, between those who trust Bush and those who believe that the ultimate veto rests with, well, a Burning Bush. Journalists are going to remain confused if they do not — quickly — realize that these are two different groups.

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Celibacy talks on the Roman table

capt pl10210061028 vatican bishop meeting pl102Here is a level-headed news tip from Andrew Sullivan and, surprise, surprise, it’s about the Roman Catholic Church.

Based on conversartions I’ve had in the past month or so with some Catholic leaders and writers (no names, please), I think he is on to something. I can hint at what I am thinking by saying that I am still trying to follow up on this column. Anyway, here is the Sullivan item:

Thursday, October 06, 2005

IN ROME: There’s a new news black-out on the latest synod in Rome. Some may well interpret this as yet another sign of Benedict’s authoritarian nature. They may be right. But the scope of the subjects discussed — “a purported shortage of priests, proposals to let priests marry, and whether communion should be offered to certain divorced Catholics and denied to politicians who support abortion rights” — strikes me as something that John Paul II would never have even allowed to be on the table. Some sources tell me that Benedict has not shut the door completely to a married priesthood. Personally, I think it is critical to the survival of the Western church at least. It already exists if the priest is a convert from Anglicanism, and if I were a newpaper editor, I would assign a reporter to write a feature on today’s married Catholic priests. Most people don’t even realize they exist. Who knows what might happen? But if the option for clerical marriage emerges under Benedict, you read it here first. I for one would not be surprised.

Sullivan is spinning off of a punchy, newsy Washington Post report from Rome by Daniel Williams. All kinds of issues are being discussed and the issue of Communion rights for pro-abortion-rights politicians is not even the hottest item on the menu.

By the way, I would add that, in the first paragraph quoted below, Williams should have mentioned that the Eastern Rite churches have married priests, as do all the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. This is the more ancient tradition for the priesthood — married priests, celibate monks as bishops.

Like Sullivan said, something is going on when a reporter can write the following:

A representative from an Eastern Rite church, one of the bodies in the traditionally Orthodox Christian region of the world that recognize Vatican authority, suggested that Catholic rules requiring celibacy among priests had no theological grounds.

Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines said the synod had to squarely confront a priest shortage so as to provide congregations with proper services.

The National Council of Priests of Australia, which claims to represent half the country’s clergy, offered a letter to the synod saying the priesthood could attract more recruits if the church allowed priests to marry and opened a debate on letting women be ordained.

Venice Archbishop Angelo Scola, who functions as a kind of master of ceremonies at the synod, noted that some delegates had “put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue,” a special category made up of older, married and religiously grounded Catholic men known as viri probati.

As you would expect, the usual suspects (the photo is from Amy Welborn’s site) have all kinds of news and commentary about the synod. Kudos to the Post for running a major report on the debates there, in the midst of a big news day back in the U.S.

Speaking of which: What is The New York Times doing using an Associated Press report for its coverage of this story? Did I miss a staff byline somewhere in the past 24 hours or so?

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Toward a culture of quotes

Keeler2Like the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc, I am not fond of the whole “scare quotes” school of writing about religion and social issues.

But this morning, the Baltimore Sun ran a story that I thought delivered a textbook example of how to properly use quotation marks when using that politically explosive term that we have been debating a bit — “culture of life.”

The context is a Matthew Hay Brown feature marking the anniversary celebration of Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore being ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. We are interested in this paragraph early on:

Today, as he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his priesthood — the actual date was in July — the cardinal is a leading spokesman for the church in the vital areas of relations with other faiths, discussion with other Christian denominations, and support for what his friend Pope John Paul II called “the culture of life.”

Later on, the story offers more insights into the term, thus fleshing out the definition. What I like is that this first reference uses “culture of life” as a real quotation, not a political term. It is directly linked to its source — John Paul II.

This is called “attribution.” It is a journalism virtue. Just do it.

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Journalists and “cafeteria” Catholics

totebag 270Talk about rigging the debate. While nothing may be higher on the Catholic agenda than abortion (even more, it appears at time, than war and poverty), it doesn’t mean the death penalty is some minor issue unrelated to Catholic teaching. A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic. The church is not neutral on the death penalty and it is clearly in opposition to church teachings even if abortion is the only litmus test . . .

Posted by Michael at 2:20 pm on September 27, 2005

This is a very important issue and the kind of factual question that journalists wrestle with all of the time. I wish I had the time (it’s column day) to dig out all of the links you need on this, right now.

Amy Welborn! If you are out there, please leave us a comment or two.

The Vatican has certainly expressed strong doubts about whether the death penalty can be used in a just way in a society torn up by racism, poverty, etc. But the death penalty itself has not been completely written off. Also, this is not an issue on which the church has been united for, oh, 2,000 years or so — such as abortion (where the condemnation is from the highest levels of the pre-schism universal church).

Just war theory is also ancient, but people within the church often wrestle with application. John Paul II condemned the war in Iraq, but this was not raised to a level of doctrinal certainty. Abortion has been at that level for centuries and centuries.

Economic justice is a perfect example of a topic where the goal is sure, but the means are not. What has caused more poverty in the U.S. in the past few generations — lack of commitment to economic justice or the fragmentation of the modern family?

Rome (and Eastern Orthodoxy, too) would say the best answer is both-and.

But there is the rub. Which modern American political party is on the correct side of both of those issues?

Michael wrote: “A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic.”

That may be true in your church, but not in the Vatican’s church. A Catholic may also argue that the death penalty can be just, but that it is racist in this culture. There are lines people draw in different places on that issue. On abortion, the church’s teachings are ancient and universal. Catholics in modern America will argue about this (and they do and the press must cover that), but the doctrinal issue is quite clear.

Meanwhile, back to the original issue that started this discussion (keep those comments coming).

The New York Times also has a report out about the frightening rhetoric of that Cheryl F. Halpern woman, the new chairperson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Once again, we are told — note the sneer quotes — that she is committed to “objectivity and balance” in public television and radio. There’s more:

Ms. Halpern’s commitment raised concerns among some broadcast executives who said her predecessor, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, used “balance” to justify providing the financing for at least one conservative program, featuring the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and for monitoring programs that have been critical of the Bush administration.

Oh my gosh! Someone attempted to justify starting one — that number does appear to be one — conservative commentary program in a nation that is as strongly divided on political and cultural issues as this one? In the age of conservative talk shows and, yes, even the dreaded Fox News? What were they thinking? Ratings? Looking for bipartisan support?

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Why journalists love Pat Robertson

Earlier this week, our friends over at the ethics and diversity office at Poynter.org published a column that I wrote pleading for journalists to drop the Rev. Pat Robertson from their list of “usual suspects” that they call to speak for the world of conservative Christians and other moral traditionalists. I thought the headline was pushy, but appropriate: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key idea I asked journalists who read that site to ponder. If another hurricane heads toward New Orleans, and you were one of the dozens of viewers who turned on MSNBC (OK, I wasn’t that snarky) and saw Pat Robertson’s face, would you be happy or sad? Would you be (a) happy or (b) sad because you knew that he was going to say something off the wall about why God was about to pour out his wrath once again on such a sinful city? patrobertson 01

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate “conservative” voice during coverage of controversial events.

I ended with a list of names, and hyperlinks, to a variety of traditional Christians that I wish reporters (and especially television producers) would call instead of Robertson. Check out the list and let me know who you think I should add. I also realize that we need lists of new voices on the religious left and in other traditions. This column was about Robertson, so I went with traditional Christians.

Apparently, Heritage Foundation pundit Joe Loconte was thinking along some very similar lines about the time that I was. He wrote a column arguing that Robertson is the perfect symbol for the authority problems that religious leaders, in general, are having in public debates right now.

Like who? Where do we start?

The Catholic Church still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.

Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and prestige.

Though growing in numbers and political influence, evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll. Here’s one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson’s clout talks like a hit man from the Sopranos — and what do his religious brethren do about it? Not much.

Yes, some traditional Christians dissected Robertson’s remarks, but others ducked into their ministry foxholes. Loconte notes that a faithful few continue to respond to each new blast from Virginia Beach by opening up their checkbooks and sending Robertson more cash for his niche TV work.

Another excellent question: How did Robertson’s latest remarks affect the safety of missionaries in Venezuela? But in a way, argued Loconte, this is almost beside the point. Robertson has been quoted and quoted and quoted saying this kind of stuff for 20-something years.

Yes, his words are news. But for whom does he actually speak? How should people respond when he erupts once again?

Loconte has some suggestions. Anyone who digs into this will have a news story.

. . . (Evangelical) leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire — publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform.

Is anyone doing that?

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Mama mia, that’s a spicy deity

meatballs 01My oh my, am I scared to blog about this story from the Telegraph right now. Nevertheless, rest assured that if I were to interview Bobby Henderson about his faith, I would do my best — iTalk is a wonderful thing — to quote him accurately and make sure that people know where he is coming from. That is what journalists do. Luckily, it does appear that he is rather candid about his views (even though his summary of the Intelligent Design mainstream is laugh out loud funny). But, hey, he is trying to be funny.

In an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education in July, Mr. Henderson wrote: “I think we can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them. I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. “I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Oh, one more thing: I am 99.9 percent sure that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, not Kansas.

I will go hide now.

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CJR: Undoing journalism?

05 05coverThe current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains an essay that is must reading for anyone who cares about the future of American newspapers and the classic “American model of the press,” which is (or was) built on the concept that newspapers promised readers fair and accurate coverage of both sides in heated debates.

The piece is called “Undoing Darwin” and the authors, Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, argue that American journalists must stop acting as if there is any kind of scientific argument left to cover related to Darwinism. Thus, “fairness” does not apply, since there are no critics of Darwinian orthodoxy worthy of being treated fairly. Thus, all the critics are religious nuts and there is no need to take their claims seriously or present their arguments accurately. It is a lengthy and highly detailed piece, and I urge readers to take the authors seriously and read what they have to say.

Here is the lead:

On March 14, 2005, The Washington Post‘s Peter Slevin wrote a front-page story on the battle that is “intensifying across the nation” over the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. Slevin’s lengthy piece took a detailed look at the lobbying, fund-raising, and communications tactics being deployed at the state and local level to undermine evolution. The article placed a particular emphasis on the burgeoning “intelligent design” movement, centered at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose proponents claim that living things, in all their organized complexity, simply could not have arisen from a mindless and directionless process such as the one so famously described in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his classic, The Origin of Species.

If you read on, you will note that Mooney and Nisbet are arguing that the position newspapers should advocate goes even further than the language now being used and defended by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

There was a time then this group officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” However, in 1997 the association’s board — amid fierce argument and controversy — removed the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” saying that this kind of language could not be proven in a lab and, thus, was a kind of faith language for agnostics and atheists. Here is a quick overview by Dr. Eugenie Scott, who is hardly a leader of the Religious Right.

There continue to be echoes of this controversy in the CJR piece and in the wider public debate about Intelligent Design.

Note again the words of Mooney and Nisbet — “mindless and directionless.” How does one prove the lack of a mind? How does one document that a process is “directionless”?

You can, by logic, argue for such a position, and many scientists do. Many openly argue that Darwinism supports atheism or some form of deism. People on the other side — the Intelligent Design crowd — are trying to use the same sequence, arguing by data and logic for a philosophical position (that evidence points to a Creator) that cannot be proven in a lab. Once again, we see this science/ logic/philosophy sequence.

However, it seems that CJR is saying that newspapers must protect the public from this debate over philosophy and science.

Personally, I think journalism is a good idea. This is not to say newspapers cannot show that the overwhelming majority of scientists in this nation back Darwinism. But it would also help if these same newspapers demonstrated that many of the Darwinian authorities cannot agree on what the word “Darwinism” means and to what degree Darwinism does or does not “prove” that humanity is the result of a random and meaningless process that did not have humanity in mind.

I would also love to see editors justify to readers — from sea to shining sea — their decision to embrace advocacy journalism on such an important and controversial issue. It seems, to me, like a quick and easy way to further weaken the newspaper industry. I do not think this is what most editors want to do.

A note to those who wish to comment: Let’s try really hard not to turn this into another row over science and religion. Please try to focus on the journalism issues involved. Thanks.

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Rick Warren’s tipping point

RickWarrenI’m not sure these days whether to be thankful for The New Yorker‘s frequent interest in the Godbeat or to be frustrated that it posts so few religion stories to its website. Fair enough, the web content for the September 12 issue focuses heavily on Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on New Orleans. When your archives include a 28,000-word essay by John McPhee on efforts to control Mississippi River flooding, you’re wise to raid the archives.

Still, think of what The New Yorker left out from this week’s issue: Eight pages. On Rick Warren. By Malcolm Gladwell.

I’ve gushed about The New Yorker‘s Peter Boyer before in this space, and his byline always means thoughtful coverage, but there’s a great chemistry between Warren (one of the most significant influences on contemporary evangelicalism) and Gladwell (who can write more than 5,000 words on, geez, personality testing and make every word count).

Gladwell’s article includes some tasty details:

• Warren predicted before he wrote The Purpose-Driven Life that it would sell 100 million copies (it’s nearly a quarter of the way there).

• Warren’s hero is the 19th-century London preacher Charles Spurgeon.

• Warren is a friend of Peter Drucker’s, who says, “Warren is not building a tent revival ministry, like the old-style evangelists. He’s building an army, like the Jesuits.”

• Scott Bolinder of Zondervan Publishing uses the phrase “the tipping point” while speaking to the author who introduced that phrase into widespread usage: “That became the tipping point — being able to launch that book with eleven hundred churches, right from the get-go. They became the evangelists for the book.”

• “Twenty-five thousand churches have now participated in the congregation-wide ’40 Days of Purpose’ campaign, as have hundreds of small groups within companies and organizations, from the N.B.A. to the United States Postal Service.” (We can expect the complaints about church-state separation any day now.)

One disappointment is Gladwell’s political reading of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes in the middle of an otherwise level-headed explanation of how evangelicals can speak of America as a Christian nation without intending to establish a theocracy:

The New Tesatment’s most left-liberal text, the Lord’s Prayer — which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring (“They will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven”), then welfare relief (“Give us this day our daily bread”), and then income redistribution (“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”).

There are plenty of texts to choose from such as (Matt. 25:31-46) to establish Jesus’ radical concern for the poor, and his warnings for those who add to, or do nothing to relieve, their oppression.

Warren indulges in some name-dropping:

“I had dinner with Jack Welch last Sunday night,” he said. “He came to church, and we had dinner. I’ve been kind of mentoring him on his spiritual journey. And he said to me, ‘Rick, you are the biggest thinker I have ever met in my life. The only other person I know who thinks globally like you is Rupert Murdoch.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting. I’m Rupert’s pastor! Rupert published my book!’”

Now try to picture Murdoch clapping and swaying to “What a Mighty God We Serve.”

For a time it looks as though Gladwell will neglect the crucial role of The Purpose-Driven Life in Ashley Smith’s encounter with escaped prisoner Brian Nichols, or his efforts to turn Rwanda into nothing less than a Purpose-Driven Nation. But Gladwell delivers on both angles, and with the subtle balance his admirers expect from him regularly.

Gladwell writes of how Warren saw, in Psalm 72, how King David asked for greater wealth and influence so he could help the poor:

Out of that psalm, God said to me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That changed my life. I had to repent. I said, I’m sorry, widows and orphans have not been on my radar. I live in Orange County. I life in the Saddleback Valley, which is all gated communities. There aren’t any homeless people around. They are thirteen miles away, in Santa Ana, not here.” He gestured toward the rolling green hills outside. “I started reading through Scripture. I said, How did I miss the two thousand verses on the poor in the Bible? So I said, I will use whatever affluence and influence that you give me to help those who are marginalized.”

He and his wife, Kay, decided to reverse tithe, giving away ninety per cent of the tens of millions of dollars they earned from “The Purpose-Driven Life.” They sat down with gay community leaders to talk about fighting AIDS. Warren has made repeated trips to Africa. He has sent out volunteers to forty-seven countries around the world, test-piloting experiments in microfinance and H.I.V. prevent and medical education. He decided to take the same networks he had built to train pastors and spread the purpose-driven life and put them to work on social problems.

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